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Karen's thoughts on the Social Economy

From Social to Civic?

Thursday, 31st January 2013

I spent Wednesday morning at The Conversation's offices listening and talking with Bear Kittay, a 27-year-old US “thought evangelist” with Burning Man.

For those who haven’t heard of Burning Man, it’s a 26-year-old festival of arts, creativity and collaboration that happens in the middle of the USA Black Rock desert. 48,000 people gather annually for one full week. They gather, build, collaborate, experience and then dissipate, leaving no trace of having been there.

Burning man is an institution and they are looking to migrate the Burning Man experience to the rest of the world in much the same way as TED has done with TEDx (see: Their inaugural event will be in Geelong in Victoria in March this year.

My takeout from the session with Bear was this one line about where we are headed. We are migrating from the social to the civic. i.e what Bear is interested in is in how to turn social (and social media) connections into connections that engage us in Civic acts.

For example one of the new actions of Burning Man is to turn their deeply invested community who are skilled in building and creating, into gathering around disaster relief. They do it via their community of 400,000+ facebook likes and 37,000 Twitter followers etc. It showcases the successful engagement of a community that holds a shared values/philosophy/way of living.

Some in the Not for Profit sector are already doing this by activating their own social media networks to encourage donations, organise events etc but still, many are not.

Not for Profits particularly have the potential to be way ahead of other organisations in mobilising civic action from social media because, by and large, they have an engaged community that sits around the organisation, who care about their purpose and who are united by the mission. They just need to get their community connected. ( I know its easier said than done. But once done, and done well, it’s powerful.)

It is good to see Not for Profit organisations starting to develop civic actions from their social media networks. Many more could do it.

Interestingly, Burning Man has very recently moved from being a for-profit entity to being a Not for Profit. 

There is a raft of “social to civic” happenings gaining momentum by the week that come across my desk. Let me know of those you may have come across. Email me at:

Karen Mahlab AM is the Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia. In 2015 she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the Not for Profit sector and philanthropic initiatives.
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